Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Abigail Hunter is mystified and not too happy when she receives her acceptance letter from The Smith School for Children, a boarding school she didn’t know her mom had applied to.  She makes friends quickly, though, and is settling in when she uncovers a shocking truth.  The headmistress Mrs. Smith is actually a spy, and so is Abby’s mother, Jennifer, who has gone missing.  Abby is recruited and quickly trained in spying techniques and self-defense, then sent to California to try to lure Jennifer out of hiding and get the top-secret information she has uncovered.  Nothing goes as planned, Abby is kidnapped, the mission is botched, and when she finally returns to school, she is relieved of her spying duties.  Determined to find her mother, she recruits her friends to help her, and sets off for their home in New York City.  There’s plenty of action and high-tech gadgetry, as Abby manages to free herself from one perilous situation after another and finally reunite with her mom.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Plenty of humor and action will make this an appealing choice for many readers, who can look forward to book 2 coming out next summer.

Cons:  You’ll definitely have to suspend some disbelief as you read about Abby’s non-stop escapades in the spy world.

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The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

Published by Imprint

       

Summary:  Moxie McCoy is at a crossroads in her fourth-grade life.  Her best friend has moved away, and she is shopping for another one, specifically one who can help her solve mysteries.  She is also taxed with the job of making sure her younger brother Milton is doing okay while their scientist mother is away hunting insects.  In the midst of all this, the school’s beloved owl mascot goes missing, and Moxie takes it upon herself to solve the case.  This involves multiple trips to the principal’s office to report on her findings, which are mostly confident, if mistaken, declarations of who the real culprit is.  As the day goes on, Moxie finds herself working more and more with Milton, whom the reader will notice has some traits, like patience and thoughtfulness, that Moxie occasionally lacks, even if she is three years older.  Working together, the siblings solve the case, and Moxie even gets a lead on a new best friend, paving the way for book #2.  Includes “Moxie’s Official Debrief” (some questions to help the reader think critically about the story), Moxie’s Dictionary, and an excerpt from one of Moxie’s favorite girl detective stories that she refers to throughout the book.  336 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Kids will love Moxie, Milton, and the format of this book, with the illustrations woven seamlessly into the text.  Cartoon bubbles and different fonts make the dialog come alive.  Readers will keep rooting for Moxie as she refuses to give up on the case or her friends and family.

Cons:  Readers will occasionally groan at Moxie’s cluelessness.

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Hero Dog! (Hilde Cracks the Case, Book 1) by Hilde Lysiak with Matthew Lysiak

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Hilde is a young detective and reporter who has started her own online newspaper, The Orange Street News, about events in her neighborhood.  When she hears about a break-in, she jumps on her bicycle to find out more.  A trail of clues leads her to a series of people who have had a baked good stolen…and right on the morning of the big Bake-Off Bonanza!  Hilde’s reporter father has trained her to look for the who, what, where, when, how, and why, and she doesn’t give up until she’s found the answer to each one of those questions.  The mystery isn’t solved until she’s at the Bake-Off itself, and it’s a determined little black dog who finally leads her to the culprit.  Includes information about the real Hilde, who wrote this book with her father, and a preview of book #2.  96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Fans of Cam Jansen and the A to Z Mysteries will enjoy this new series, particularly when they find out it was written by someone their own age.  Hilde is smart and determined, and she and her older sister work well together with a refreshing lack of sibling rivalry.  Another successful early chapter book series from the Scholastic Branches imprint.

Cons:  All the teenagers in the book are portrayed as nasty and obnoxious (giving you a clue about the “who” in the mystery.)

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The Shadow Cipher (York: Book 1) by Laura Ruby

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  In an alternate New York City, three seventh graders rush to solve a century-old puzzle that they hope will save their home.  When the unique building they live in is bought by an uncaring billionaire, twins Theo and Tess and their friend Jaime decide to try to solve the Cipher.  Created by the Morningstarr twins in the nineteenth century, the Cipher has baffled people for years, including the twins’ grandfather, now suffering from dementia.  When the kids discover a letter sent to their grandfather that appears to be from one of the Morningstarrs, they think they have stumbled upon a new version of the Cipher that may lead to its solution and the treasure that awaits the solver.  Rushing from one adventure to the next, the reader learns about some of the steampunk-inspired inventions of the Morningstarrs that are part of daily life in this version of NYC.  Although the kids discover important clues, the case of the Cipher is still not cracked by the end, and a cliffhanger will leave readers anxiously awaiting book 2.  496 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Rick Riordan will eagerly consume this tale featuring three gifted, quirky protagonists, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of adventure.

Cons:  The kids seemed to solve the extremely difficult puzzles with remarkable ease…although at least some of that may be part of the mystery.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary:  Aven has always believed she can do whatever she wants, and being born without arms hasn’t stopped her from playing guitar, excelling at soccer, and making plenty of friends at her Kansas middle school.  But when her parents suddenly decide to take over Stagecoach Pass, a has-been theme park in Arizona, Arlen has to start eighth grade in a new school.  Unable to face the stares of her new classmates, she takes to eating her lunch in the library, where she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s syndrome and Zion, a boy struggling with weight and self-esteem issues.  The three become friends, and uncover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass involving tarantulas, a locked desk, and a mysterious girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Arlen.  In the process of solving the mystery, the kids also have to acknowledge their own limitations and learn to reach out and help each other reach their full potential.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Arlen is a confident, hilarious narrator whose fun and supportive parents have taught her to face life head-on and learn to do as much as she can for herself.  The story ends on a realistically uplifting note for all the characters.

Cons:  Zion seemed like a bit of an afterthought.  I would have liked to have known more about him and seen a little growth and change for him.

King and Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

Published by Peachtree Publishers

Summary:  Anyone who has read Dori Hillestad Butler’s Buddy Files series knows that Buddy started life as King and lived with a girl named Kayla before being sent to the pound.  In this series for younger readers, Kayla and King work together to solve mysteries in their neighborhood.  As readers who are acquainted with Buddy know, King has many favorite foods and can understand humans, but can’t make them understand him.  In this first installment, Kayla and her friend Mason receive almost identical letters in code.  King can sniff out the identity of the sender, but the two kids have to rely on other clues.  They list what they know and what they need to know, and eventually are able to crack the code and solve the case.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Beginning readers will enjoy solving mysteries with the irresistible King, then moving on to read about his life as Buddy.  The humorous illustrations and fast pace will keep them engaged.

Cons:  It makes me sad to know that Kayla and King ultimately will be separated.

Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander, illustrated by Laura Zarrin

Published by Bloomsbury

Summary:  Wallace and Grace are two owl friends and partners in the Night Owl Detective Agency.  Wallace is a careful rule-follower, and Grace is an enthusiastic go-getter, but each one appreciates the qualities of the other.  In this first installment, the two friends are hired by Edgar the rabbit to investigate a ghost-sighting in the kale patch.  Carefully gathering and clues and using a bit of logical reasoning, they are able to work together to uncover what’s going on.  Readers can look forward to a couple of sequels, as well as some similar series in Bloomsbury’s Read & Bloom imprint for newly independent readers.  80 pages; grades K-2.

Pros:  A perfect first chapter book, with plenty of colorful illustrations and gentle humor.

Cons:  Wallace comes across as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.